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The Disloyal Opposition By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 06, 2002

"WE HAVEN’T FOUND BIN LADEN," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle groused on this week’s Fox News Sunday. "We haven’t found (Mohammad) Omar. We haven’t stabilized the [Afghan] countryside. We’re still having major disruptions. We had a conflict yesterday where American lives were lost."

But rest assured, Daschle told host Tony Snow, he has "no question about the success" of the war effort thus far.

Such is Daschle’s baffling assessment of the war on terrorism, which alternately switches from hypercriticism to unconditional praise. In back-to-back appearances on Sunday’s network talk shows, he offered his odd take on the world’s events, delicately doing his best to question President George W. Bush’s leadership without actually questioning President George W. Bush’s leadership. The result was a political display as incoherent as Daschle’s foreign policy itself. It was the sort of performance which, if delivered by a Republican (say, Bush), Democrats would point to as a sign of an inferior intellect.

According to Daschle, the Bush Administration has provided no clear direction for the war, no sense of the time or sacrifices it will require, and no vision for what role the nation’s allies should or will play in the final outcome. It’s also failed in two of what he considers to be the war’s top priorities: the death or capture of Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Nonetheless, "you can’t overstate the success that we’ve enjoyed so far," Daschle told Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

The contradictions stem from Daschle’s desperate need to find a campaign issue to use against the ever-popular Bush, coupled with the reality that Americans overwhelmingly back the war. Democrats can read polls as well as anyone, and realize that to oppose the war, or even to take serious issue with Bush’s prosecution of it is political suicide. That’s why they have tried, ever since last fall, to find a domestic dispute to sap the President’s popularity.

Donald Lambro has amply documented the strategy in the Washington Times. First, there was Daschle’s attempt to blame the Administration for the recession. Next, Democrats tried to portray Enron’s financial collapse as a GOP influence-peddling scheme. In the Senate, Daschle did his part to frustrate Bush’s domestic policy by thwarting the Administration’s trade, energy, and stimulus bills.

When criticizing domestic policy failed to produce the results Daschle had hoped for, he had little choice but to move on to the war.

This is tricky business. Americans have rallied behind Bush, and they’re rightfully skeptical of politicians who undermine the Commander-in-Chief for crass political reasons. Thus Daschle’s awkward handling of the situation. He has carefully trotted out various criticisms of the war, usually recycled from the left-wing press, without actually taking ownership of them. He hides behind his much-professed support of Bush’s performance, waiting for one of the critiques to resonate before making it his own.

The first attempt came about three weeks ago, when Daschle echoed the complaints of many leftist critics regarding Bush’s use of the term "axis of evil," telling PBS viewers that "we’ve got to be careful of using rhetoric of that kind."

When that statement fell flat even fellow Democrats denounced it Daschle was quick to backtrack. "What I said was that I think it is important for us to stand united in our determination to reduce the tension and to deal directly with these three countries," he explained. "There is no difference between myself and the President on the importance that we all put in dealing directly with these three countries."

Last week, he complained that the war is expanding "without at least a clear direction to date." On Meet the Press, he elaborated: "How do you ensure that what it is we’re doing is ultimately going to lead to success? What will phase two require and how many troops are going to be there? Will our allies be involved? How do we define success in the out years?"

But these are questions Bush has already answered: We’ll do whatever it takes to win, and we’ll send in as many troops as necessary. We welcome our allies’ support, but if need be, we’re prepared to go it alone. Success is defined simply: The complete eradication of all anti-American terrorist forces and the states that support them.

Capturing and or killing bin Laden and Omar Daschle’s other preoccupation would make for satisfying, symbolic victories, but this is a war against an ideology and a worldwide movement, not a police action against a handful of thugs. Whether, at the end of the day, bin Laden is lying dead under a heap of rubble or shivering in a cave dressed in a burka is largely irrelevant. The real question is whether he, and people like him, will still have the means and the inclination to kill yet more Americans.

That question seems to concern Daschle far less than how he can turn the war into a political weapon against Bush.

Daschle claims that he’s only exercising his civic duty. "We have a constitutional obligation to ask questions," he insists.

Fair enough. Reasoned debate on foreign policy, even during times of war, is healthy and worthwhile. But Daschle hasn’t played the role of earnest critic, raising genuine if unpopular concerns about the war in the interest of saving lives. His approach has been far less noble, and far more cowardly. He’s testing for weaknesses in the national resolve, hoping to find an opportunity, one area in which Americans aren’t united in their objectives, that he can turn into the basis of the Democratic congressional campaign in 2002 and his own presidential bid in 2004.

He has played the part of the disloyal opposition, and made it his own.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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